Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) …continuing series on
Human Intelligence published November 2005 in the Riverside Review

Here was a French writer and philosopher who hated tyranny and loved freedom. It is said that his ideas inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and helped shape world history. This gifted individual was a prophet of the new democratic ages that were to come after him. However, his antagonists have pronounced him a dangerous heretic who scorned organized religion and have somehow attributed to him the origin of many of the alleged evils of modern times, ranging from the restiveness of “hippy” youth to the rigors of totalitarian societies.
What of the man himself? “My birth was the first of my misfortunes,” he wrote. His mother died in childbirth. His father, being a watchmaker in Geneva, Switzerland, brought up his son himself. When Jean-Jacques was ten, the elder Rousseau got into trouble with the law and fled the city leaving his son with an aunt. Young Rousseau was sent off to a parsonage for schooling where he received instructions in Bible reading, arithmetic, and sermons. In the country school he not only absorbed religious doctrine, but acquired some vices. A spinster teacher, the pastor’s daughter, used to punish him physically, which, he later recounted, aroused in him precocious sexual impulses. On another occasion he was “whipped to pieces” for a misdeed of which he was innocent. This unjust punishment gave him a hatred for authority and made him “all the more rebellious, deceitful and mischievous.” Jean-Jacques was a good-looking boy and at 16 ran away to Savoy, where he became friendly with Madame de Warens, a wealthy widow. He spent the next 10 years in her home, where he met some of the most brilliant men in Europe.
His young life was a whole series of escapades and follies during which Jean-Jacques often encountered persons who trusted and sheltered him. He attested years later that, of his own knowledge, the plain people were “naturally good.” He learned much about social forces in peasant huts or roadside inns, or even as a servant in the homes of the gentry and remained a free spirit unreconciled to the values of society. His intellectual growth was not formed by receiving ideas from universities, but from exposure to life and by direct observation.
In 1842 Jean-Jacques Rousseau began to write and also to compose music. He invented a new system of musical notation which gained him new and influential friends. Rousseau was personable and spoke with paradoxical reasoning power; in short he was an original who could rise to heights of eloquence. He was invited to contribute articles on music and political philosophy to the French Encyclopedia. He also had a little opera produced in a private theater. The Swiss watchmaker’s son was thriving in Paris.
Rousseau believed in the natural goodness of men. He felt that men are often evil because the political and social institutions in which they live are corrupt. What sort of institutions would permit men to realize their natural goodness? His answer was that both education and politics had to be reformed. In his
Emile (1762), a novel about the development of a young man, Jean-Jacques advocated an educational system that would encourage self-expression, instead of the harsh discipline and regimentation customary in his day. In The Social Contact (1762) he discussed the ideal state. “Might never makes right,” he wrote. “We have a duty to obey only legitimate powers.” And the only rightful rulers, he added, are those whom the citizens freely choose for themselves. The monarch’s right to rule, he claimed, was given him by the people, not by God. Thus, he concluded that the only good state is a completely democratic one.
In his novel
Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), Rousseau emphasized the value of feelings as opposed to reason, and of impulse and spontaneity as opposed to self-discipline and restraint. He was one of the earliest writers to champion the new romantic taste in literature and the arts that was to characterize much of the next hundred years.